The Android Music Platform – Is it worth it?

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So as tablets have become a common tool and touted as a viable music creation option, iOS apps for music have multiplied and slowly started to become more intricate moving beyond the original amateur do-it-for-you apps, to more complex professional solutions. However, those of us who think the Apple value proposition is poor, (e.g. iPad mini $425 vs N7 $250) or that their “elegant” user interface design is… well childish, have despaired to see android solutions stagnate and remain the province of indie developers. Not that there aren’t some very viable options (there are), but large developers such as liine, propellorhead, Imageline, moog, et all have seemingly resisted investing in developing for the droid eco-system.

In this post I am going to try and answer some questions about why this is and have a realistic look at the problems and also the solutions that are being presented.

 {  before I do, here is a link to a website which lists the current music apps available http://www.androidmusician.com/  }

Android – Pre Jelly Bean –

    I am a long time fan of Android, I like its open ecosystem which drives choice up and prices down. I also like the general methodology with its semi-open interface. However, there have been serious issues with Android devices in the realm of music making since its inception. Up until Jelly bean, using android as a real-time performance device was, well… you basically couldn’t. The commonly used audio API (Audiotrack) before Jelly Bean had a maximum recommended audio latency of 100ms which is essentially equivalent to the amount of time it takes for me to boil the kettle and make a coffee. By equivalent, I of course mean that it is just as useless…. Mostly this is because it is Java. Which is poop.

    Secondly, Android has a much larger processing and graphics footprint than iOS or even WinPho 8 and as such resources are tight. Best case, music app development tends to be sparse and include very little in the way of ‘pretty’ design. A basic case in point, Caustic 2, which is an excellent little program for making minimal tunes but one which looks pretty fricking ugly and boxes you in to feeling like your creativity is blocked except beyond minimal composition and about 8 different (simultaneous) tracks. 😉 Even more so, if you consider Alexander Zolotov’s SunVox – which is an excellent software to consider and is compatible (and free) with linux & windows, is well adapted to touch, but looks like the dark pit of hell you will definitely descend into if you want anything more than a basic psytrance or minimal techno track. It is not exactly the epitome of variety that is the modern DAW.

So what is a droid fan to do?

Well there is some good news and some possible better news on the horizon. Jelly Bean has created some new hope for developer engagement. Audio latency has shrunk to 12ms which is usable if not ideal, (ideal would be =<5ms). Also they have added support for USB audio which is a key step and USB midi is becoming more mainstream. “search midi monitor on google play” 

For more detail on recent audio developments for android check out the thread below

http://createdigitalmusic.com/2012/07/android-high-performance-audio-in-4-1-and-what-it-means-plus-libpd-goodness-today/

So Pretty…

   One of the issues with android tablets is the ARM standard “mali-400” GPUs that most android processors incorporate which are well… shit. 😉 Samsung is an especially bad actor in this space using the stock standard boring 4-core GPU which any enthusiast will tell you is, not the greatest amount of cores, nor even created by someone . In fact when it comes to GPU cores; more cores with less hz is better than less cores with more htz.

  In to this space steps Nvidia. The best graphics combination in the Android ecosystem and a top tier contender for best out of all the mobile ecosystems, their long experience as the top selling graphics card producer from the PC sector brings a beautifully powerful 4big+1little core CPU with 12 GPUs to their Tegra 3 offering and with the newer Tegra 4 chip (due in May) they multiply the GPUs by 6 for a ‘sensual grunt’ worthy 72 individual processors. 😉 oh yeah…

So good news then for current Nexus 7 owners and future TEGRA 4 purchasers.

So quick…

   Project Butter was a concerted effort by Google to clear out the cupboard of dusty old bullshit code and move into a more solid codebase and with that effort they have created a clearer, cleaner system.
Jelly bean has quickly succeeded Ice Cream Sandwich, and while the majority of cheap no name brand less tablets seem to stick with ICS or even gingerbread, it easy to pick up a tablet running Jellybean for less than $250.

Looking to the future…

The issues contributed to the Android system are associated with its open ecosystem, which means that there is always going to be crap products pushed by dodgy Chinese manufacturers which can’t be helped. Having said that; to tar them all with the same brush is ludicrous as Samsung has proven recently, by becoming the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world. Apple apologists will tell you that this is “because of their many offerings” but the reality is for Q3 last year their two flagships the S3 and the Note II outsold the iPhone 4S and 5. ~ (note: the iphone 5 reaffirmed its dominance in Q4 but we can expect the two to trade No. 1 status back and forth in the future) ~ Add to this the reality that the half baked iPad mini was mostly a reaction to the Kindle Fire(and partly the Nexus7). In fact what Google wanted to develop with Android was a larger pie in which the larger slice will be Android; with iOS, WP8 and Blackberry taking specific corporate and hipster demographics. They seem to be succeeding.

 As well as this the latest Nexus offerings take direct aim at the iPads/iPhones, (finally) offering a mature product comparison at a fraction of the cost. e.g.

Nexus 4 16gb – 50% of cost of equivalent iphone
Nexus 7 32gb wifi – 59% of cost of equiv. iPad mini
Nexus 10 32gb WiFi – 89% of cost of equiv. iPad

So what does this mean?

For a long time iOS has been known as the ecosystem where most music & visual creatives like to exist, yet as time goes by and the major improvements in audio and user interface solidify, more people will become natives of the android system and with the low low price of the tablets it will mean more users for developers to target. Naturally, Android musicians are willing to pay for music apps just as much as their iOS counterparts, so it will become a must for developers to develop for both systems in order to maximise revenue potential.

So… Is it worth it?

Yes! As an example of this check out the progress on Imageline’s FLStudio android app below. It should be out in the next month or two(as of posting).

http://www.image-line.com/documents/android.html

Like Imageline, other Pro developers will (if not already) find the value proposition for developing for android incredibly tempting so I predict that very soon we will be seeing more pro developer options for android tablets and phones arriving with much fun to be had for us droid fans. 🙂

That’s it from me friends,

Feel free to post comments below and I will endeavour to reply asap.

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